Someone has to be in charge. Don’t they?
On the highway, in the classroom, at the factory, during the ball game, and in the Christian life, nothing works without someone present being empowered to say, “This is the way; walk in it” (Isaiah 30:21). Right? Or not?
Let’s think about the subject of authority….
In “The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published,” David Skinner describes the hostile reaction that greeted the release of “Webster’s Third Edition” in 1961. The incident makes a great point for church folk.
First, a few words about the book.
Skinner’s book traces the development of dictionaries in this country and their struggles to determine what goes in and what stays out. Secondly, it chronicles the work of G. and C. Merriam Company to produce a new kind of dictionary this time around. (The book is not easy reading and I admit to having read it off and on over several months.)
What made “Webster’s Third” different is that the editors came to the interesting conclusion that no one had made them the authority over the English language. No one had put them in charge of English as spoken and written in America. In fact, they decided there is no authority.
No authority on the English language. Imagine that.
This must have come as a shock to every teacher I ever had in elementary and high school. Invariably, they would fault students for some breach of the language and add, “Check the dictionary.” Yep, there it was, in black and white.
In the fifth grade, I was “set down” in a spelling bee because of “mama.” I knew perfectly well how to spell that word because my mama spelled it that way when she wrote to her mama on the Alabama farm. But the dictionary spelled it “mamma,” and that was good enough for Mrs. Meadows, our teacher.
Who would dare argue with a dictionary? If it’s there, it’s official, right?
These days, I’m finally experienced enough to want to say to the teacher, “Oh yeah? Who said? And who made them the authority?”
Smiley-face here, please. I’m not upset, just making a point.
When the Third Edition was released, words like “ain’t” and other frowned-upon slang words were included. What irked many was that the definition did not flag “ain’t” as unacceptable, something spoken only by the uneducated (and we Alabama farm boys).
It simply noted that “ain’t” was “not standard.”
“Editorializing has no place in definitions,” said an internal memo at Merriam’s. Therefore, the Third Edition would contain no more snide putdowns of certain words as “colloquial among the uneducated and unsophisticated.” “Illiterate.” “Unacceptable in normal circumstances.”
And that bothered the fire out of a lot of people.
If there is no authority to say what’s right in language and what’s wrong, what are we to do?
The boss of G. and C. Merriam, owners of the Merriam-Webster dictionaries, pointed out five important facts about our language:
1. Language changes constantly. It is forever transitioning, dropping off some words as obsolete, tweaking the definition of others, and inventing new words.
2. Change is normal. Every language of every civilization is a movable thing; none is static.
3. Spoken language is the language. No longer should written language be the official language and spoken language be considered second class.
4. Correctness rests upon usage. The context is everything.
5. All usage is relative. “It depends” is an iron-clad rule.
Well! The nation went berserk when the Third Edition was released in 1961. Editorials in magazines and newspapers bemoaned the death of language in America. (Note: That was over sixty years ago. Has anyone lately been missing proper English around here? Not to my knowledge. The standards are still pretty much intact, although constantly morphing, as–this is critical–they always have been!)
Some editors made a list of slangwords found in the Third (including jazz, crazy, hot, dig, beef up) and wrote whole paragraphs using them. “Ain’t ain’t wrong any more,” headlines announced. And that just would not do.
Now. Here’s the fun part.
It turned out that almost every one of the slangwords editors took exception to in the Third Edition could be found in the Second Edition which they were sanctifying as the divine standard of English usage. The naysayers who were rejecting the Third in favor of the Second had not even bothered to check the Second to see if the words were there.
They. Had. Not. Checked. To. See.
As a preacher, I find the whole business so revealing. We are so much this way. Ministers are notorious for standing in the pulpit and condemning books we have not read, movies we have not viewed, and positions we have not studied but have heard other people condemning. (Critical Race Theory comes to mind in 2022.)
And, in sermons, it is practically a Mosaic law that we can say anything we wish so long as it’s in quotations. Any unusual position we take on a doctrine or text should have a reference to back it up. So long as we can cite someone else as the authority for the position, we’re safe.
After the release of Webster’s Third, never again would a dictionary be allowed to serve as the supreme court of the language. The die was cast, the gate was unlocked. Never again would we be able to pen that flock again.
It seems to be a human thing. We do like our authorities, don’t we?
Otherwise, without an authority–someone to say this is the standard–how do we teach English usage and proper writing? How does a teacher mark a paper, red-circling some words as unacceptable and blue-lining others as great?
When do we use like and when do we use as? How about the difference in will and shall? And who will decide?
When I was coming along in school, you said something is different from something else. But over the last generation, more and more I’ve noticed literate people (ha–there’s that word again) writing that something is different than.
All of this has application to so many areas of life in our country….
People want traffic cops to say this is right and this is wrong and that one is arbitrary.
We look to the U.S. Constitution to do that and we grieve when told that “it is a living document, ever-changing to fit the needs of a growing nation.” Oh really? Who decided it was? (Answer: the Supreme Court did, for better or for worse.) In 1973, the Court found “the right to privacy” inherent in the Constitution and ruled in favor of a woman’s right to have an abortion as a provision of that newly-discovered constitutional right. Once you start playing that game, you can make the Constitution say anything you like. And that’s exactly what many are attempting.
And that is why the battle over the definition and role of the Constitution has been raging for the past 40 years.
Americans look to Congress as our authority, making our laws and defining how things will be. Alas, that ever-changing body, which seems as lost as it ever was, keeps vacillating and back-tracking and deliberating. The American people will, in each election, throw out a large number of Congress members and install new ones, only to repeat the process two years later.
We want authorities in our religion, and are lost without them. Each religion, to my knowledge, has some kind. The LDS has a body of ruling elders in Salt Lake City, the Jehovah’s Witnesses look to a mysterious ruling junta in Brooklyn, and Southern Baptists turn to the Bible. Oh, and we look to the annual meeting of our denomination which votes from time to time that certain doctrines are in and some are out. Our “Baptist Faith and Message” is a document containing the latest incarnation of orthodoxy as we see it. To anyone insisting that this was never intended as our authority for anything, I suggest you ask denominational agencies and officials. They live and die by that thing. Even pastors will insert a line on their resume to the effect that “I subscribe to the Baptist Faith and Message,” sometimes with a date afterwards, implying they don’t care for amendments that followed.
The pastor of a Christian church may or may not have a body exercising authority over him. If he does–elders, deacons, administrative committee, whoever–then in all but the rarest of cases, he chafes at their intrusion. Biblically, God has given to the pastors the oversight of the church. See Acts 20:28 for starters.
Biblically. Interesting adverb.
That’s our authority. “What does the Bible say?”
That’s also our problem. People disagree as to the answer in many cases. (Not, we hasten to add, 99 percent of the time. But that one percent contains some biggies.)
That’s where the rule of love comes in. “By this shall all men know you are my disciples that you love one another” (John 13:33-34). It’s the reason for submission. “Be subject to one another in the fear of the Lord” (Ephesians 5:21).
Love + submission = humility.
Without love and submission–and the humility they produce–it’s a constant dog fight.
I’ve known churches that were in “constant dog fights.” They were struggling to decide who would call the shots.
Pastors and other leaders must personify love and submission by the humility they exhibit in their daily walk, their public preaching/teaching, and their leadership.
Congregations must live by the love-submission standard of humility if they would please the Lord and be used of Him to bring the gospel to the world.
Our Lord said, “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18).
I think He’s saying He’s in charge.
What a revolutionary thought.